How can we dismantle hierarchies between students and professors in higher education? What does critically engaged public scholarship look like? Why is fashion such a provocative and generative site for thinking about complex sociocultural issues?

In episode 58 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach talks with cultural studies scholar and writer Sara Bernstein about why she started a digital magazine focused on fashion and politics, why public engagement and community projects are the future of education, and how becoming a public scholar is allowing Sara to imagine otherwise.

Guest: Sara Bernstein

Sara is the editor and co-founder of Dismantle Magazine: Fashion, Popular Culture, Social Change. She started Dismantle with fellow wayward academics Elise M. Chatelain and Meredith Wallis to explore different ways of doing cultural studies—ways that would reach beyond the university to wider, intersectional communities, and that would help dismantle the barriers many learners face when navigating classrooms and new ideas. As that project continues to grow, she’s also become executive director of its nonprofit offshoot Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance, LLC.

Sara is a writer and educator who specializes in critical fashion studies, representation, and cultural studies. Her work has appeared in Racked, Full Stop, Inside Higher Ed, Fashion, Style and Popular Culture Journal, and Critical Studies in Fashion and Beauty, as well as several edited collections of scholarly essays. With Dismantle co-founder, Elise Chatelain, she’s also published articles on feminist pedagogy and paranormal teens in TV and film. She teaches at the Pacific Northwest College of Art and got her PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis.

We chatted about

  • Dismantle magazine (02:06)
  • Rethinking public education (05:16)
  • Being a public intellectual (08:12)
  • Critical fashion studies (11:56)
  • Dismantle Culture and Media Alliance (13:40)
  • Imagining otherwise (16:04)

Bokeh background with text that reads "Doing a PhD does a real number on your self-esteem. So doing public intellectual work means not necessarily getting over all your insecurities but living with them and doing the work anyway. We need to realize that the work we do is valuable and a lot of people care about it. Go out there, do it, and value it. Sara Bernstein on the IMagine Otherwise podcast, episode 58"


Dismantle Magazine

Dismantle Magazine covers fashion, popular culture, and social change…We just had our one year anniversary just a couple weeks ago. It is weird to create something from absolutely nothing, and we have no time and very little money. We wanted a way to do cultural studies outside the institution of the university.

Making public education accessible

Our name Dismantle is about wanting to dismantle barriers and dismantle hierarchies, and one of those barriers is understanding how education works. So things like online office hours and developing relationships outside the classroom with students help dismantle hierarchies and barriers to the university experience as well as to what the job of a professor is and how professors relate to students. With online office hours, one of the things Elise and I both thought about is that office hours are incredibly important to your education as a college student. Both of us come from kind of modest backgrounds without the cultural capital you really need to navigate that system. Neither of us ever went to office hours, we understand totally why none of our students come to office hours except for the ones who already kind of know how to work it. We thought with online office hours, we could do is meet students where they already are—which is online…We haven’t gotten rid of hierarchies altogether, but I think we can change what they mean and offer more mentoring and collaborative opportunities than the classroom allows.

Becoming a public intellectual

The biggest thing that I’ve learned as I’ve been trying to move into a different role with my scholarship is that doing a PhD does a real number on your self-esteem. Part of the process is making you feel small. So doing public intellectual work means not necessarily getting over the insecurities that came up during your PhD program (people telling you that your work wasn’t good enough, that you’re too weird and you’d never get a job, you’re too interdisciplinary or whatever). But it does mean living with those insecurities and doing the work anyway. We need to realize that the work we do is valuable and a lot of people care about it. Just go out there, do it, and value it.

Critical fashion studies

Fashion is a site that brings together everything that I care about. It’s history and aesthetics, it’s the body and identity, and all kinds of intersectional issues. It’s how we decide we want to move through the world and how we want to fit in the world. It’s also how the world shapes us. It’s labor, it’s the environment, it’s everything that shapes the way that we are right now. That’s what’s exciting about it.

Imagining otherwise

I want to dismantle hierarchies and dismantle the boundaries that artificially separate us. I think if we were all a lot more collaborative and better listeners that we could be doing some pretty incredible stuff. That’s what I’m working towards.

More from Sara

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

Get our latest podcast episodes, posts, and trainings to help you create amazing work